Culture and Religion Divide Europe, Affecting US-Europe Relations

Today’s continent is fractured along fault lines that are only growing wider.

Peter Rough Hudson Institute
Peter Rough Hudson Institute
Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Europe and Eurasia
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Andrzej Duda give a statement before talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 17, 2016. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Andrzej Duda give a statement before talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 17, 2016. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/Getty Images)

p(firstLetter). After dinner in Berlin recently, I took a late-night stroll with a German colleague whose family hails from the former East Germany. As we passed near the double line of bricks that marks where the Berlin Wall once stood, the conversation drifted to questions of identity, and the divisions that still plague the eastern and western halves of Berlin, Germany, and Europe. “For my western friends, the European Union is like a special purpose vehicle for eliminating the nation-state,” he explained. “But for my grandmother, and especially Eastern Europeans, it’s a means to wealth and defending their nations against outsiders.”

This comment, made so offhandedly in the shadow of the monuments to postwar reunification, illumines the stark reality of modern Europe: that divergent conceptions of religion, nationalism, and the role of the state leave the continent divided in ways it has not been since the end of the Cold War. While the nations of the former Warsaw Pact view religion and nationalism as essential and inalienable foundations of statehood, the leaders of Western Europe see the arc of the moral universe bending away from the very concept of statehood itself. As Europe’s challenges from within and abroad grow ever more pronounced, these differences are showing up in every aspect of continental life, from approaches toward integration to migration policies and relations with the United States.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of German reunification, the youth wing of the German Green Party posted a tweet referencing the disintegration of the German Democratic Republic on October 3, 1990. “On the 3rd of October,” it read, “a country was dissolved, and many people are celebrating twenty-five years later. Why shouldn’t we succeed at repeating that with Germany?” Although widely panned, the tweet expressed, in 140 plangent characters, the vision of technocratic, post-modern governance. Put simply, a very real portion of Germany’s elite sees German foreign policy as the key instrument for promoting the obsolescence of German foreign policy.

Contrast this sharply with the world one finds a long morning’s drive to the east in Warsaw. There, on November 11, 2018, right-wing nationalists marched in the March of Independence, held annually to commemorate the reestablishment of Polish nationhood in 1918. Walking alongside them was Andrezj Duda, the president of the Republic of Poland, who solemnized the occasion with a rousing call to Polish unity. “I want us to walk under our white-and-red banners together,” he said, “and in an air of joy. To give honor to those who fought for Poland, and to be glad that it is free, sovereign, and independent.” One imagines these remarks falling on deaf ears with the Green Party of Poland, and they may well have if the Polish Greens constituted much of a political force to begin with.

With Polish leaders hailing the nation-state and the German elite contemplating its abolition, it should come as no surprise that the two countries, and the members of the European Union (EU) that share their worldviews, have markedly different approaches to the very idea of European integration. These attitudes are rooted in the vastly different historical experiences of the two blocs.

The divergence, at least in its current iteration, can be traced to 1989. Western European elites interpreted victory in the Cold War not only as the triumph of liberalism over communism but as a clear verdict in favor of universal secular values over nationalism, religiosity, and parochial culture. An overweening belief in globalization supplanted the more modest commitment to freedom of Europe’s traditional capital-L Liberalism. For the emerging leaders of the nations of the east, however, the end of Soviet dominance heralded a new era, rife with opportunities for national renewal and patriotic self-expression. This produced a dangerous mix: the good shepherds of the EU saw a continent laid fallow by a half-century of division, awaiting the plow of integration, while those in the east—those with the most immediate experiences of Soviet control—saw only national soil waiting to be sown with national ideas.

As the post-Cold War order began to solidify, the dream of EU expansion became a reality. A project which in its nascent stages had been a Franco-German brainchild designed to safeguard French and German interests became undermined, as the Union enveloped the countries of the Warsaw Pact, by the assertion of alternative voices. What began as a concept rooted in realpolitik became a large bureaucracy imbued by the ethos of secular humanism and anti-nationalism. It should thus surprise no one that religious Romanians and pious Poles have grown increasingly resistant to the imposition of this French laïcité, inspired as it is by the anti-clericalism of Voltaire and the internationalism of Diderot.

The result of this imposition has been an explosion of populist rebellion, linked especially to the issue of immigration. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 swung open the doors of Germany to nearly 1 million refugees fleeing the Middle East, German elites celebrated her as the very embodiment of compassion. Claus Kleber, Germany’s most prominent television anchor, was so touched by the generosity of his countrymen that he nearly wept on air. To close observers, the country’s response was hardly surprising. Amongst the elites, Merkel’s decision represented an opportunity to complete Germany’s transformation on a grand scale, replacing traditional strategy-making with an anti-nationalist search for continental unity in the service of human rights.

Unfortunately for her, this line of approach affected strategic thinking in the capitals of Eastern Europe, too. From Budapest, Warsaw, and points further east (and south, and west), the chorus of opposition to increased migrant flows was consistent and resounding. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán articulated the opposition to the German plan clearly: “I can only speak for the Hungarian people, and they don’t want any migration. It’s not possible for the people to have a will on a fundamental issue and for the government not to comply with it.” Hungary was hardly alone; in nine out of 15 Eastern European countries that Gallup surveyed in 2016, at least half the population believed their country should not accept any Syrian refugees.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the migration crisis is that the largest act of rebellion against Brussels has come not from the east but from the west. Great Britain’s decision to exit the European Union is a truly dramatic event in the continent’s history, the equivalent of Europe’s 15 smallest members by population deciding to leave the Union together. Officials, intellectuals, and politicians from Western Europe who dismiss Brexit voters as irrationally acting against their own economic interests may be correct in that judgment, but they are altogether beside the point. Those who did vote for Brexit were not motivated by economic interests at all—they were willing to cede a few points of gross domestic product in exchange for more control over their future. For these voters, as well as for so many in other corners of Europe, the most salient concerns are not simply economic, but cultural. This is why right-wing populists seem to be succeeding where left-wing populists, at least for the moment, are still catching up.

It’s also part of the explanation for the continent’s evolving relationships toward the United States. The mutually reinforcing link between political liberty and religious inspiration, over which European and American minds have found common cause since Alexis de Tocqueville observed its centrality in 1831, has never before in the history of Western Europe been as weak as it is today. The Treaty of Lisbon, which serves as the EU’s most important recent document, followed earlier precedents and rejected all references to God Instead, and against the ardent objections of religious citizens and authorities alike, the EU defined itself as a secular vessel for the free flow of labor and capital. If the decade since the treaty’s effect has clarified anything, it is that this is not how most Eastern Europeans wish to define their fate.

All available data suggest that Western and Eastern European attitudes on the centrality of religion to everyday life are miles apart. Only 34 percent of German and 32 percent of French citizens believe that religion is either somewhat or very important to their national identity; for Poles and Romanians, the respective figures are 64 percent and 74 percent. Sixty-six percent of Romanians, 69 percent of Bulgarians, and 89 percent of Greeks are more likely to regard their culture as superior to others, while only 20 percent of Spaniards and 36 percent of Frenchmen hold that same belief.

Thus, it is no wonder that when Parisians or Berliners come to the United States, they often express utter bewilderment with how easily Americans relate to their Eastern European neighbors. But while Paris and Berlin may drive the conversation on the continent, the reason why Americans often make faster friends with Czechs or Poles is simple: Eastern Europeans are fluent in the language of patriotism and religion.

The consequences of this cultural-religious divergence for Europe-America relations are myriad, but perhaps most significant among them is the effect on the very notion of what constitutes “Europe-America relations” to begin with. Indeed, with the culturally eastern and western parts of the continent embodying such different conceptions of what it means to be a member of a nation-state, the phrase may mean as little as the very idea of Europe itself. Today’s continent is fractured along fault lines that are only growing wider. What it will look like in even a decade’s time is anyone’s guess.

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